Broadcasting 2.0: Creating an orchestra out of a cacophony


Broadcasting companies have successfully adapted to social media 1.0. Most radio and television broadcasters own a Twitter account and have accumulated a sizeable number of ‘likes’ on Facebook. Today, in the age of social media 2.0, digital stories are partly told by the audience and curated by the broadcaster. Media strategist and consultant Jonathan Marks shares his views on the future of broadcasting with Gemma van der Kamp.

When media strategist, anthropologist and trend spotter Jonathan Marks advises broadcasters on how to integrate emerging technologies in the work flow, he is driven by one major principle: making sure that the conversation with the public is happening.

In an era when the voice of the online citizen is more present than ever before, the idea may seem obvious but according to Marks, there is still much work to do.

He uses an anecdote from his consultancy work for NGOs in the field of disaster prevention as an example. In the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami in Asia, one NGO had built a sophisticated earthquake warning system for the local community. When a minor earthquake hit a few months later, however, no one was prepared because the system had been switched off.

Instead of accusing the locals of negligence, the NGO should blame itself, says Marks. The NGO had only focused on how it thought the community could best be prepared for a disaster and had not discussed whether people felt comfortable in using the system. “The NGO had ignored the crux of the matter: that it should work with the people and not only for them,” Marks explains.

He notes some similarity in the way some broadcasting companies approach social media. “They only use social media for the sake of publicity. They don’t even post a profile picture on their page on Facebook. This shows that they are just another outlet focused on audience ratings with no interest in starting a conversation with their followers. The audience on the other hand is getting fed up with not having any influence.” 

Media strategist, anthropologist and trend spotter Jonathan Marks: “The audience is getting fed up with not having any influence.”

Curating the news

It is perhaps understandable that media outlets are reluctant to give free reign to their audience. After all, the booming landscape of new storytellers has resulted in one big “cacophony” of voices and opinions.

Yet, argues Marks, “the challenge for journalists is to create an orchestra out of this cacophony.”  He suggests doing this by curating the news, i.e. by gathering, verifying and sharing the news with the purpose to create an intelligent collection of customised content.

Marks is currently working with the Canadian-based Farm Radio International which has been using this approach:  “The radio station researches low cost practices in sustainable agriculture and community development. It writes radio scripts aimed at farmers in Africa with recommendations on how to improve food security and decrease poverty. But radio stations in Africa complain that frequently, the farmers don’t cultivate the crops discussed in the radio packages.” To solve this problem, Marks is proposing to create a Wikipedia-like archive, where radio scripts and tips received from farmers during the live radio shows can be saved. 

Naturally, there is a risk for the archive to become a dumping platform for all sorts of information.

“This is where journalists come in,” argues Marks, “by finding useful tips from listeners, verifying them and recommending them to the larger audience.”

“Radio stations can compose an intelligent collection of content and distribute it by using their scope and network,” he adds.

Profile dependent content

Marks defines this type of collection as “profile dependent content.”

“I imagine companies providing specific audiences with so-called news briefings,” he says. “Suppose a company in carbon trade which can’t separate the wood from the trees in the abundance of news about carbon trade. What it needs is a package of specialised news. A media outlet specialised in carbon trade could curate the news and brief the company once a day on what it thinks is important for the company to know.”

Several small companies already offer news briefing services and successfully manage active online communities. They understand the trick of building niche channels and developing relations of trust with the audience. “This is where the future for broadcast media lies,” Marks predicts.

The US-wide netcast network launched in 2005 with the radio podcast This WEEK in TECH. The show is a mixture of phone-in calls and founder Leo Laporte’s opinions on emerging technologies. The podcast has now grown into a video publishing centre producing a number of programmes ranging from This Week in Computer Hardware to iPad Today. “Laporte has successfully built a niche channel by creating a conversation with his audience,” says Marks.  “He understands how to motivate communities by surprising the audience. He cherry-picks good stories and makes sure they come across to the people.” All shows are archived and ordered in an active multimedia Wiki.

The change from a traditional hierarchical news structure to specialised channels and online community management requires a change in mind set. “Big media outlets put so much effort and resources in breaking news”, criticises Marks. “Today major events are always broken by the public through mobile phones and digital cameras. Media outlets should respect that, and focus on the audience’s needs. The audience wants the journalist to verify and back the story, and give possible scenarios of what could happen next and to archive the material in a smart way.” 

Next Steps for Radio and Print Journalism in Africa, by Jonathan Marks

In Marks’ view, broadcasters need to work cross-media, by adapting their content to mobile phones, websites and tablet devices.

The idea of curating the news by cherry-picking good stories through web research and by using the audience’s input seems promising. The technology to curate stories, however, is still inadequate.

Although various online tools to organise and share content have been developed, such as the Pearltrees application allowing users to collect, share and re-treat online content, “the problem is that once the link is re-treated, you have lost the original content”, Marks argues. “What we need are tools to build libraries and create intelligent tags. So many excellent stories are never kept.”

Will new models for broadcasting, such as news briefing service and online news archives, be profitable? “The ideal situation would be that broadcasters can offer a specialised news briefing subscription service for which the public is willing to pay,” says Marks. producers do not call themselves journalists as the channel is dependent on advertisers’ money. ”They are very ethical about it though,” says Marks. “It is very clear when items carry advertisements. The problem with most tech journalism and the blogosphere is that authors are often not transparent about sponsoring.” 

In his career, Marks has witnessed the change from a traditional news hierarchy where broadcasters owned the news to an environment where the story has to be told in collaboration with the audience.

He is now interested in finding out what will happen when broadcasters eventually anticipate on social media by not only distributing content on social media platforms, but by interacting with their audience on these platforms as well. 

He sees challenging years ahead for media, technology and journalism: “Because technologies are changing so fast that the industry doesn’t understand its own innovations.”

Jonathan Marks is the owner of Critical Distance, a company which specialises in cross-media production, consultancy and training. He is based in the Netherlands but is currently active with projects in West-Africa, South Asia and Northern Europe. He helps broadcasters integrate web and mobile technology in their workflow. Marks started his career as a presenter and producer of the technology programme Media Network on Radio Netherlands. He later became programme director for Radio Netherlands television.